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Meet John B. King Jr., Who Will Be Acting U.S. Secretary of Education

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 02, 2015 5 min read
Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. testifies before the Senate education committee on Capitol Hill as it considers whether to confirm him as head of the Education Department.
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John B. King Jr., a former New York state commissioner of education, will take the reins at the U.S. Department of Education following Arne Duncan’s departure in December.

The son of educators, King—who is Black and Puerto Rican—was orphaned at age 12. He credits his teachers in the New York City public school system with his success, saying they made sure he didn’t fall through the cracks.(More in this Huffington Post piece by King.)

“New York City public school teachers are the reason that I’m alive,” King said, as President Barack Obama introduced him at a news conference as his new acting education secretary. “They gave me hope about [what] could be possible for me in life.”

And, he said, he’s eager to bring Duncan’s initiatives in for a landing. “It’s an incredible agenda, and I’m proud to be able to carry it forward,” he said.

Before joining the New York state education department, King helped open several New York City charter schools via Uncommon Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit charter-management organization.

King’s tenure in New York was marked by tumult, much of it the by-product of implementing the state’s ambitious Race to the Top plan. Among other policy shifts, the state adopted the Common Core State Standards in early 2011, began creating a statewide teacher-evaluation system linked to student achievement, and announced reforms to teacher-preparation programs and licensing.

Teacher evaluation would soon prove to be the toughest lift. Although the legislation that created the evaluation system had been supported by the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers, the finer-grained details posed significant challenges. State regulations fleshing out the law were contested, leading the NYSUT to sue over their format. The state was also among the first to introduce student tests measuring common-core skills, generating great concern among teachers, and ultimately fueling the “opt out” movement among parents.

During that period, King was instrumental in supporting the development of the common-core-aligned curriculum, EngageNY. The open-source curriculum is reportedly the most-used online curriculum tool in the country, although it, too, proved controversial; some teachers complained that it felt too “scripted.”

In navigating the difficult role, King proved to be, at different times, both flexible and stubborn. In 2013 when the New York City district and its union could not reach agreement on how to evaluate teachers, King’s ruling combined elements from both parties’ arguments. Yet during a series of often-raucous open forums with parents and community members that same year, he was a steadfast supporter of the tougher common-core standards and teacher evaluation, and pushed back against plans to delay the requirements.

Teacher colleges, meanwhile, struggled to ready teachers for a new series of harder licensing exams. Many complaints centered on a demonstration-teaching exam, the edTPA, that critics said was put in place too quickly. King defended the new tests, though, saying they would help increase rigor in teaching programs.

The pressures of moving so far, so fast—coupled with an internal shuffling at NYSUT—led to a protracted battle, culminating in the union’s vote of “no confidence” and call for his ouster in 2014.

At the department, King has served as the agency’s face on initiatives aimed at improving student equity. He has been serving in the capacity of a senior adviser, and did not go through confirmation. It’s unclear if that will be an issue for Senate Republicans.

Looking Ahead

David Steiner, King’s predecessor in the New York education department, was effusive in his praise for his former deputy.

“He is the hardest-working, smartest, and most dedicated educator I’ve ever worked with,” Steiner said. “He understands as few do that a small detail, be it in a structure of evaluation or implementing a standard, or thinking about a budgetary issue, may turn out to be huge. He had the capacity to pay attention at a level of detail as well as to see the whole, which was extraordinary.”

Just what mark King could make in his new federal role remains to be seen. With the Race to the Top winding down and Congress in no mood to fund competitive programs, much of the education secretary’s position’s power has waned.

King will still need to keep the No Child Left Behind Act waiver process on track and to oversee the upcoming peer review of states’ assessment systems.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, expressed hope that King might push the department in a different direction, although she wasn’t sanguine on the matter.

“John King could be Nixon goes to China. He could be the person who helps get [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] fixed,” she said. “Hopefully he’s learned enough from everything that’s happened in his life to do that. But New York was center stage to this polarization. New York’s [teacher]-evaluation system has changed four times. It’s ridiculous.”

Some in the civil rights community were unhappy with the department’s NCLB waivers, which they say weakened protections for disadvantaged students. Accountability is likely to be a sticking point in negotiations over reauthorizing the ESEA.

So will King approach those issues differently?

“Arne would be horrified to be thought of as the non-equity guy. It’s quite clear he feels very passionately and in fact is driven by kids and what he thinks is right for kids and low-income kids and kids of color in particular,” said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, an advocacy organization. “Obviously we’ve had some real differences with him around accountability.”

And she added, “John’s decision in New York to make those [issues] front and center certainly makes me believe he understands very much how this needs to be a priority for all schools and driven through the state ratings systems and not just something on the side.”

Alyson Klein and Liana Heitin contributed to this story.

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